Biden Defends U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — President Biden on Tuesday forcefully rejected criticism of his decision to end America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, hailing what he called the “extraordinary success” of the evacuation of Kabul and declaring the end of an era in which the United States uses military power “to remake other countries.”

Speaking to the nation less than a week after a terrorist bombing killed 13 service members at the Kabul airport during a chaotic rush to leave the country, Mr. Biden said the costs to the United States would have been even higher if he had allowed the nation to remain mired for years in a civil war that has dragged on for decades. In blunt terms, he claimed the only alternative to the departure he oversaw was another escalation of the war.

“When I hear we could have, should have continued the so-called low-grade effort in Afghanistan, at low risk to our service members, at low cost,” Mr. Biden said in the 26-minute speech, “I don’t think enough people understand how much we’ve asked of the 1 percent of this country who put that uniform on.”

“There’s nothing low grade or low risk or low cost about any war,” he continued. “It’s time to end the war in Afghanistan.”

“I respectfully disagree,” Mr. Biden said, at one point pounding his finger on the lectern and delivering a sense of righteous indignation about the second-guessing from critics on Capitol Hill and others outside the administration.

At the heart of Mr. Biden’s argument is a bet that Americans — a majority of whom say they support an end to the war — as well as historians will judge his decision to withdraw troops as the only acceptable one, given the situation on the ground when he came into office at the beginning of the year.

Withdrawing from Afghanistan was a central campaign promise, and White House officials believe that a majority of voters will reward the president for following through on what he said he would do.

Mr. Biden portrayed himself as a leader who took the only course available to him through a thicket of bad choices, laying blame on the Afghan Army and his presidential predecessor, Donald J. Trump, who reached an accord with the Taliban last year that committed the United States to fully withdraw by this past May. He said that the United States had “no vital interest in Afghanistan other than to prevent an attack on America’s homeland” and that the war should have ended a decade earlier.

“That was the choice, the real choice between leaving or escalating,” Mr. Biden said, his voice frequently rising to sort of an indoor shout. “I was not going to extend this forever war.”

In making that argument, Mr. Biden offered a glimpse of a different American foreign policy in the post-9/11 world. He said he would shun ground wars with large troop deployments, instead favoring a strategy guided more by economic and cybersecurity competition with China and Russia and focused on countering threats with military technology that allows strikes against terrorists without having large contingents of troops based on the ground in a place like Afghanistan.

Mr. Biden acknowledged that “about 100 to 200” Americans who want to get out of Afghanistan were left behind when the final troops withdrew. But he said the United States would continue to make diplomatic efforts to help them leave in the days ahead.

“The bottom line,” he insisted, “is there is no evacuation from the end of a war that you can run without the kinds of complexities, challenges and threats we faced. None.”

In his speech, the president said his new approach to dealing with the world would not lead to the kind of America First isolationism of Mr. Trump.

“We will continue to speak out for the basic rights of the Afghan people, especially women and girls, as we speak out for women and girls all around the globe,” Mr. Biden said.

And he downplayed the messiness of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan, offering assertions that critics say stretch the truth.

He said officials had always assumed that the Afghan national security forces would be a strong adversary to the Taliban. In fact, numerous intelligence assessments inside the government, as well as outside experts, had said for years that the Afghan forces were proving to be weak and ineffective.

Mr. Biden also boasted that his administration had reached out “19 times” to Americans living in Afghanistan and offered them “multiple warnings” to leave the country as the Taliban approached. But he did not mention the numerous times his administration rejected advice from human rights groups, lawmakers and others to begin evacuations earlier.

The president cast the country’s final departure from Afghanistan as a moral necessity, underscoring his refusal to sacrifice the lives of more American service members to a war that has long since strayed from its original purpose. But the cost of that moral clarity was high, even at the end: 13 more service members lost as the United States raced to evacuate Americans and allies.

Mr. Biden said the nation owed a debt of gratitude to the troops who died in the evacuation mission.

“Thirteen heroes gave their lives,” he said. “We owe them and their families a debt of gratitude we can never repay, but we should never, ever, ever forget.”

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